And the gender-bending APRIL Book of the Month is....MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides

(64 Posts)

MIDDLESEX has won our April poll (in a dead heat with SACRED COUNTRY, it narrowly scraped through by getting heads in a coin toss)

We'll be chatting about MIDDLESEX on Tuesday 28 April from 8pm to 10pm. Hope you can join us!

Don't forget you can order your copy here

And, for anyone who missed out on the vote here were April's book choices and this is how Book Club works.

JudithChalmers Wed 01-Apr-09 17:55:49

Right I have bought it

casbie Fri 03-Apr-09 10:22:11

ooh, read this years ago...

all you readers out there, your up for a treat!

: )

FreakGeek Fri 03-Apr-09 14:15:11

SUCH an amazing book- enjoy- quite jealous- wish i could erase memory of it and read it for the first time again.

babybarrister Sun 05-Apr-09 09:58:56

read it in my book club a couple of years ago - very good read save for the ending [in my humble opinion .....]!

TheBreastmilksOnMe Mon 06-Apr-09 19:45:10

Just bought the book. BTW for those of you who would like to buy books cheaply and help the environment at the same time is the website. I've managed to sell loads of my old books through it and whenever I want to buy a book, like I have just now I check if it's for sale there first. Greenmetropolis

stirlingstar Tue 07-Apr-09 16:27:01

I've just ordered it and it will be my first MN book club. Inspired by recent thread on what are you doing to improve yourself!

janeite Tue 07-Apr-09 16:40:06

I liked it! Can't remember much about it though unfortunately, so won't be able to join in the chat.

AbleSister Sun 12-Apr-09 22:01:13

I am reading.
i think they start was slow and odd.

loved ( well found engrossing) the SMyrna bit.
the desciption of detroit also fab.

TheBreastmilksOnMe Sun 19-Apr-09 21:09:20

I'm about halfway through at the moment and i'm finding it slow, overly descriptive and heavy-going. Maybe I'm missing something here but I just don't get it.

GracieGrace Sun 19-Apr-09 21:10:08

I finished it and adored it

GracieGrace Mon 20-Apr-09 10:24:30

in fact all the mn books i have read i have loved
thanks a lot

mummycat1 Wed 22-Apr-09 20:04:04

When do we vote for May's book?

May selection just coming - I will post the page next Tuesday 28 April (same day as our discussion night). We are doing the Orange Prize shortlist which was released 2 days ago - some great books on there...

I am finding the going quite slow with Middlesex too, although loving it. Need to get some serious speed reading done before Tues night. I've got a previous Q&A with his publisher that Mr Eudenides sent me, I'll post it up just before the chat so we can discuss that too.

DutchOma Fri 24-Apr-09 08:51:10

I'm not sure what to do about this book. I'm on page 65, very slow going, started as soon as the other book was finished, and I'm definitely not loving it at all. does it get better? Or do I abandon it?

mummycat1 Mon 27-Apr-09 13:09:38

DutchOma I felt the same way as you - too much irrelevant detail and too many laboured points - so I've just skimmed over most of it and stopped at interesting bits. The last part, which is actually about Cal is more interesting IMO smile

orangina Mon 27-Apr-09 20:09:08

I'm (re) reading it atm..... loved it then, am loving it again now. Agree that it took some time to get going though......

Dysgu Mon 27-Apr-09 20:36:24

Once I got into it I really enjoyed this book although, yes, there are some sections where it does seem to go on a bit!

pottycock Mon 27-Apr-09 20:40:54

Oh I loved this book. Fantastic.

I absolutely adore this book! It's one of my favourite ever reads but I can see why people wouldn't enjoy it.

For those of you who loved it, have you read anything by John Irving? I found his writing style similar to Eugenides and ^The Cider House Rules^ is probably grappling with Middlesex for my favourite ever read.

I absolutely adore this book! It's one of my favourite ever reads but I can see why people wouldn't enjoy it.

For those of you who loved it, have you read anything by John Irving? I found his writing style similar to Eugenides and ^The Cider House Rules^ is probably grappling with Middlesex for my favourite ever read.

Looking forward to this evening. Thought you might like to look at these snippets from the author beforehand.

Right, got to get back and finish the damn thing... see you at 8.

1) Where did the Hermaphrodite idea come from?

Nabokov said that great novels are great fairy tales. And what better fairy tale could there be than a story of metamorphosis, of changing from one thing into another? The original impetus for the book came from a literary disappointment. Years ago, I came across Michel Foucault's "Herculine Barbin: The Memoir of a 19th Century French Hermaphrodite." The story, on face value, seemed to me irresistible. It had everything: an overheated convent atmosphere, forbidden love, miraculous physical change. The problem was that Herculine Barbin couldn't write. Her memoir was a melodrama studded with exclamation points and evasions of the physical facts. Middlesex began as a simple spasm of self-aggrandisement on my part. I thought to myself: I could do it better. So I gave it a whirl. For the next nine years.

The character of the hermaphrodite has a long history in literature, from Ovid right down through Virginia Woolf. I see it as a classical subject. I chose to write about gender identity for the reasons people have always written about it. Plato spoke of the original human being as hermaphroditic. These two halves were sundered and therefore now we have to make reservations for dinner on Valentine's Day. I've always been fascinated by case histories of hermaphrodites and, from what I can tell, a lot of other people are too.

What drew me to the hermaphrodite as a subject was the chance to write about something fantastic that was, in fact, verifiable. Or as Cal's puts in the book, "my mythical life in the actual world." In literature, hermaphrodites have always been creatures of fancy. Mine was going to be an real person. I wanted to get the medical facts right. It was fine if the novel was a fairy tale. But it also had to be true.

2) In the Virgin Suicides the narrator was a whole group of men, in “Middlesex" someone with both male and female sensibilities. Do you like to make things hard for yourself?

I seem to. I wish I could get over it. But the voice of the novel, Cal's voice, was the first great problem I had writing the book. It took me literally years to arrive at it. It wasn't only its androgynous qualities I had to worry about. The voice had to be elastic enough to narrate epic events in the third person as well as a deeply personal, psychosexual drama in the first person. Compared to Cal's voice, the collective narrator of "The Virgin Suicides" came easy, in one go, really. With Cal's voice I had to fuss around for a very long time before it came together.

3) The adult Cal is a third generation American Greek immigrant living in Berlin, who bears a striking resemblance to yourself. Is there much of you in him and what deductions can the reader make from this?

Because I was writing such an incredible story, I had to ground it in reality in order to make it credible for myself and, hopefully, the reader as well. That's why I drew on a lot of surface details from my own, supposedly real, life. Berlin, where I've been living the past three years, came into the book only at the very end, when I rewrote the frame story. As for the physical resemblance, that's really not true. Cal is immune to the effects of dihydrotestosterone. He will never lose his hair.

Writers are forever warning readers not to confuse them with their characters. But readers go on doing so. I think it's a lost cause to plead this case. Cal's life is so far from my own experience, at least on a medical level, that I made him resemble me to bridge the gap.

4) In the same vein, to what degree does the family history of Cal correspond to your own?

The same rule applies here: the family in the book resembles my own only on a superficial level. My grandparents did indeed immigrate to the United States from Asia Minor, but, at the risk of disappointing you, I must insist that they were not brother and sister. The locales in the book come from real life, the houses in Detroit and Grosse Pointe. I actually grew up on Middlesex Blvd. There it was all those years, emblazoned on our street sign: my title. My grandfather did run a bar & grill but my father never went into the restaurant business. He was a mortgage banker. My mother isn't even Greek.

5) The Greek immigrant story in America is not one that is widely known. Did you feel that the story needed to be told?

As hermphroditism came into it, classicism came into it. As classicism came into it, Hellenism came into it. As Hellenism came into it, my family came into it. I used my Greek roots because they were handy, not out of any ethnic boosterism. That said, being Greek plays a big role in the novel. I learned a lot about my heritage by writing the book. On superstitious days, I did feel that I was communing with the dead in the only way I know how: imaginatively, in words. It was a means of finally knowing my grandparents, who died when I was still young. It was a way of returning to Europe and the Old World.

6) What are the major literary influences on your writing?

I studied Latin for seven years in high school and college. The single greatest influence on me at a formative age was reading the Aeneid, line by line. That's where I learned to read. And that's where I first began to have some idea of the complexity and patterning of a literary work. Looking at my work thus far, I sometimes think to myself that it was that epic, the Aeneid, that influenced me more than any other book. It had a burning city in it, too, remember. There were supernatural elements and grand addresses to the reader. Closer to our own time, I've been influenced mainly by the great Russians (Tolstoy and Nabokov), and the great American Jews (Bellow and Roth.)

mummycat1 Tue 28-Apr-09 12:04:31

So the moral of the story is don't sh**g your brother! Guess we knew that one already. grin

Lizzzombie Tue 28-Apr-09 14:20:08

Can I just say, I really enjoyed this book, and recommended it to my sister a few years ago. She didn't bother reading it but brought it for her FIL for Christmas, thinking it was the history of Middlesex. When I explained that it most certainly wasn't that kind of book (on xmas eve) she had to get her MIL to steal the present away at the last minute!

Okay, first let me come clean and say there are whole swathes of this book that I had to skim over because I was a) not sure if I needed to know it all in that much detail and b) desperate to finish by tonight. So I might be a little sketchy in parts.

But on the whole, I thought it was incredibly imaginative, tackling massive subjects such as fate and destiny as well as being very funny and perceptive. The gender issue is much less important than I thought it would be - I felt the real subject is how you become who you are through family, random decisions made over decades, the passions that flare up and die.

Did everyone find the style too hardgoing to enjoy? And do you think the rambling style was intentionally digressive, mimicking the randomness and detail of all those ancestors and events that led to the present moment? Or perhaps trying to be like an old Greek epic?

WibblyPigRocks Tue 28-Apr-09 20:12:25

I did find the detail unnecessary at times - I just skimmed the bits that I found a bit dull and I don't think I've lost anything by doing so.

I did wonder whether some of the superfluous detail was actually intended to distract us. In that excerpt above, Eugenides describes the narrative voice as 'elastic' and I found the frequent change from 3rd to 1st person a bit unsettling at times - especially when Cal was just talking about himself. I understand that this could represent the way that Cal has struggled with his own identity, as well as the way his identity is part of (and a product of) his ancestors', but I also thought that the author was trying to encourage the reader to feel uncomfortable, perhaps like Cal did.

DutchOma Tue 28-Apr-09 20:13:29

I gave up on page 87. I didn't enjoy it at all and was not sure that I would enjoy the rest of it. I may be missing out on the best book ever, but oh well...
What's for May Tilly?

WibblyPigRocks Tue 28-Apr-09 20:15:25

I enjoyed the 'family saga' element to the story, though. The description of Greece and the journey to America was fascinating and very emotive. At times, though, I did feel like I was reading the script for a channel 5 documentary and I wondered whether I was reading on because the narrative style was compelling or because I wanted to find out when (or rather HOW) Cal discovered she was a hermaphrodite.

stirlingstar Tue 28-Apr-09 20:15:52

I personally found the rambling a bit hardgoing, as to me it didn't really add much to the story of Cal the hermaphrodite.

I thought that the author was going to bring out some ideas about how the Greek heritage played in to Cal's experience of the 'middle sex', or helped him to deal with the experience, or something. But other than a VERY long backstory about how the genes came to be in place, I didn't think this really worked. And however much the gene bit was described in flowery language, I didn't find it made the genetics very charismatic.

In fact Cal himself was really cut out of the story. I wanted a story about the experience of hermaphradotism (? is that a word), but most of that story (between Cals teens and his random resurfacing in Berlin) was missing.

Maybe I'm just a disappointed voyeur.

WibblyPigRocks Tue 28-Apr-09 20:17:35

Stirlingstar - I agree about the part of the story that's missing. How did Cal find his place in the world?

Referring back to my channel 5 doc comments, I'm sure that makes me a disappointed voyeur!!

barbara3 Tue 28-Apr-09 20:19:06

I did not finish it - but I am thoroughly enjoying it so far - about 150p in. Wibbly pig - I like the way you have interpreted the writing style and so far would go along with that - will be watching this thread....... Loved the writing style

stirlingstar Tue 28-Apr-09 20:21:55

And on the Berlin thing, why? Is there something that's gone over my head about the symbolism of Berlin in a story about Greece/Detroit/Hermaphrodites? In his Q&A the author implies that it's chosen just because that's where the author lives - but then that's a bit lazy isn't it?

stirlingstar Tue 28-Apr-09 20:26:53

WPR - what did you think when you did get to the bit where Cal discovered he/she was a hermaphrodite?

May is a choice of six Orange Prize sortlisters - just putting the thread up now and will post here when done...

I don't know if you're missing out on the best book ever, but I would say that there are so many different compartments to it, so many pieces of history and characters that its worth carrying on because you are bound to find parts that interest you. I never knew the Turks burnt Smyrna (and that image of the doctor's son running to the door before beind bayonetted through his pyjamas is huanting me).

WibblyPig, I think you are right, the writing style does make you feel confused. And it does help to show how limitless and indescribable each individual human being can be.

carriemumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 28-Apr-09 20:35:02

I just finished it tonight and have really enjoyed it, though am not completely sure why - perhaps just a sense of achievement in finishing something so long.

It was interesting that it kept your attention and you wanted to know what happened even though, because of the structure you already knew Cal was living as a man in Berlin.It did feel like an old greek epic and I quite enjoyed that generational saga.

I thought the scenes with The Object were well observed ad quite gripping as was the Dr Luce stuff

I thought it got a bit far fetched at the end with the Father Mike plot.

I spent a lot of time brooding on how I would cope, as a parent, how you would cope with something like this happening to my child, but I'm not sure that was what the author really wanted us to do - but I do find I view everything thro parent-coloured specs these days!

I also thought hermaphroditism aside, Cal would have been a lot more tortured by the fact that her/his running away basically caused his/her father's death.

Kids calling - be back soon.

carriemumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 28-Apr-09 20:39:10

...oh and agree with the ignorance about Smyrna and the horrific images haunting you afterwards.

Was surprised how accepting I was about the brother marrying sister - I thought that relationship, particularly the early bit was written with real tenderness

WibblyPigRocks Tue 28-Apr-09 20:44:03

stirlingstar - I'm not actually 100% where Cal did discover that!! Was it when having sex with Jerome? He/she said she knew but I can't quite understand 'what' he/she knew. So, was the real moment of discovery after the accident? With Dr Luce? I suppose she knew she was different (I've gone for 'she' as she was a she at this point, but as the narrator is undoubtedly the male Cal, should I write 'he'?) but didn't have the biological understanding until later. There was, perhaps, gradual understanding with other things, too.

I suppose I was a bit disappointed in a way - I almost wanted something more dramatic. As I'm writing that, though, it sounds silly - what's more dramatic than sex and a farm accident?! Perhaps it's because the narrator played it down - both of these events are described more in terms of how they shaped Cal's relationship with The Object than of how they helped shape his (ha ha - why did I write 'his' then?) sexual identity.

What did you think?

I've only got halfway through but enjoying it so far, even if it does meander quite a lot. Like Tilly I found the historical background fascinating, I'd only heard vaguely about those things happening so it was interesting to find out more. I like the theme of immigrants settling in their new country and I think the characters are quite well depicted. A huge amount of irrelevant detail though which I was thinking for a time would all have relevance later but I'm now guessing not!

WibblyPigRocks Tue 28-Apr-09 20:46:27

Agree, Carrie - I would have expected to be more horrified at the brother/sister thing but it was written in a very sympathetic way. The narrator really encouraged the reader to 'understand' their feelings and circumstances, yet I would have expected Cal to feel resentful - after all, these events apparently led to his hermaphroditism.

WindUpBird Tue 28-Apr-09 20:46:34

I'm only up to the bit where Cal's parents are beginning a 'courtship', so nowhere near finished. Agree that it is not an easy read. I enjoy reading it but it isn't taking over my life in the way that a really good book does.
Stirlingstar...I'm not sure about the Berlin thing, does Cal mention early on something about the significance of a divided city becoming whole again?

Interesting that he didn't try to tackle how Des and Lefty's parents would have felt about it.

Somewhere I read a review that said it was the lack of any other choice that led Lefty to pour out lust on his sister (with those two other girls on the hillside not taking his fancy). But I think they way it was portrayed showed true emotion. Do you think if they hadn't been forced to flee and stayed home it would have worked?

And how does everyone feel about the idea of their kids getting married? I've only got two boys and can't quite imagine a further gay twist in the story, so haven't really got to grips with what I might feel.

missclovis Tue 28-Apr-09 20:50:49

I really enjoyed the grand themes, big characters and coincidences in this book. For example, incest, race, homosexuality, drugs,blackmail, and hermaphrodism. This made it feel like a mythical tale where the characters were victims of their destiny. And the fact that it was also very funny at times ( the bit at the end with Father Mike and the father was great) made it one of the best things I read in ages. I thought it was an American immigrant novel (like stuff by Philip Roth) but with the additional dimension of being told by someone who was also an outsider by gender. This made Cal a very unusual narrator. I too was intrigued by how he found his place in the world but I think the task he set himself was to tell his family's story through his own experience.

carriemumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 28-Apr-09 20:50:58

I think one of the things that kept me reading (and it links to the c5 voyeurism thing) is wanting to know if he'd decided to properly become a he - ie have surgery etc. Is that very news of the world of me? shock

I think it's probably indicative of one of the things the book was about - society demanding that you are one gender or another - that I wanted him "tidied" up, both a mental and physical decision made, so that he could have a more "normal" life. I really wanted it to work with Julie but - again projecting like I did with parents - couldn't imagine how I'd react if a bloke I was dating told me something like that!

stirlingstar Tue 28-Apr-09 20:55:03

I agree that there wasn't one single moment when Cal discovered it (unless maybe with Dr Luce learning the exact words for it).

Have to say my initial reaction was to be a bit peeved that there were now so few pages left in the book I guessed that I wasn't going to read much about life after the discovery!

Was the narrator playing it down - or perhaps this part of the story was nicely paced as a realistic real life reaction? In contrast to the very slow middle of the book and the 'and then I became a performer in a strange swimming-pool based sexual freak show and then my Dad died in a road chase with my Uncle' ending.

Actually, that makes me think of the early part of the story, about the developing relationship between brother and sister - I also thought that part was very well written and very nicely paced - agree with Carriemumsnet.

barbara3 Tue 28-Apr-09 20:58:20

I think Berlin is a background because of the once east/ west divide ... male/ female divide type parallel divide and 2 opposites fighting for unity in one type theme

Yes I agree Carrie, the fact that Cal is a hermaphrodite is making me read on. If he was simply a 'normal' narrator I think I would consider giving up now and reading something else. But I really want to know what has happened in his life as a hermaphrodite.

I once watched a documentary on children and teenagers who are 'mixed sex' it was really fascinating to see how they dealt with it. Sadly they did seem to be outsiders but some were adamant to remain how they were and not have surgery.

stirlingstar Tue 28-Apr-09 21:00:51

(My two boys are absolutely besotted with one another (15 wks and 2.4), so maybe they will marry...)

carriemumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 28-Apr-09 21:05:57

I think everyone would be appalled at thought of their kids getting married to each- tho on some level you might feel you'd done a good job if they loved each other rather than wanting to fight all the time

In the book it felt like a different world, where this sort of thing was relatively common - choice was limited and life was short and brutal. The way they worked on forgetting that they were brother and sister was really well observed - I think we've all done that, recreated a truth and then told ourselves it's true enough times to start believing it.

If the hermaphroditism had come as a shock revelation - it might have made me regret my acceptance of the brother sister relationship, but as it was there from the start and the narrator seemed Ok with it, I think it allowed you to accept the incest.

Sorry am rambling....

carriemumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 28-Apr-09 21:07:55

btw my dd did want to marry ds when they were 6 and 3. I said if they still wanted to at 18 that was fine by me... funnily enough now they're 7 and 10 they're not so keen. The 3 year old dd does still want to marry her dad though grin

And just want to add: I thought perhaps the baggy parts of the book were because the author grew up in Detroit and sometimes lost himself in a world of nostalgia and history and research which must have had huge resonance to him but pass us by.

Perhaps that's true of all of it- so much was his own Greek-American immigrant history, it was a little like someone showing you their family photo album and spending an hour talking through each page.

I did love his description of coming home as 'a canine feeling, full of eager love and dumb to tragedy'.

stirlingstar Tue 28-Apr-09 21:15:07

Ah that's interesting Tilly. Overall I think the whole book is rather self-indulgent for the author: having Cal sat about in Berlin for no good reason other than that's where author is (don't really buy the 'divided city' thing - it's true, but author doesn't use it in any way), and spending pages and pages telling us about his research in to genetics, Greek-American history, Detroit in the 60s.

WibblyPigRocks Tue 28-Apr-09 21:15:40

Although it was suggested that the brother had feelings for a while (the way he sought prostitutes and thought of his sister), I do think their relationship only progressed to marriage because of their exile. As Carrie said, they created their own truth because the situation allowed them to. Had they stayed at home, I think the tension may have led to a sexual relationship but perhaps not an enduring one.

stirlingstar - you're totally right about the pace of the book. I also felt the final chapters were very rushed and that Cal didn't really deal with his father's death at all. As readers, Cal has encouraged us to relate to his father and yet he just seems to throw in his death, with the bizarre death sequence, at the end.

I didn't realise so much of his own background features in the book, makes sense really as it's easier to write rather than research a whole new area. Interesting that in the interview he says Cal looks like him too.

Has anyone read his other book The Virgin Suicides? Interested to know what that's like. I'm sure it was a film / serialised on TV.

WibblyPigRocks Tue 28-Apr-09 21:19:59

I think that Berlin is rather self-indulgent as a setting but perhaps the Greek/American history/immigrant story is utilised a bit more - it does reflect the theme of being an outsider, of finding your way in society and gradually finding your place within it. If anything, I found the references to Greek literature more heavy-handed.

Yes yes, we get it - there's incest and hermaphroditism in Greek mythology and you know a lot about it and can write as though you are a Greek chorus - but it didn't really add anything to Cal's story or encourage the reader to consider the important themes in more depth.

carriemumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 28-Apr-09 21:21:24

Anyone else want to know how someone who dropped out of school at 14 ended up in the job he was in? I would have been happy to read another 100 pages (having come this far) to bring cal's story up to date, as it were.

carriemumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 28-Apr-09 21:23:07

Sorry haven't read Virgin Suicides, but it was quite a successful film directed by Sofia Coppola - haven't seen it tho - try not to do dead children...

The Virgin Suicides is absolutely ace. Quite, quite different to this book (although I did enjoy this too) - it is relatively short, very economical, perfectly formed. It is as if everything is done in miniature, and it is so unusually narrated (the narrator is a group of boys who become obsessed by the sisters who are committing suicide - they are like an Ancient Greek chorus). It is a very bizarre, melancholy sort of story and yet doesn't come across as sad or freaky. I would definitely give it a try. It is a one-off, there is nothing like it.

I think Eugenides is still extremely talented and clever, even with the bagginess of the book and the rushed ending (which I agree, doesn't ring true and leaves you cheated). I was wondering if the editor tried to cut parts down and he refused, or if they didn't try.

stirlingstar Tue 28-Apr-09 21:28:00

I'm going to put the Virgin Suicides on my to-read list.

spiderinthebath Tue 28-Apr-09 21:34:13

Another half way through person here - I tried SO hard and didnt make it - the tenderness of the relationships I loved and actually the descriptive narratives too (although without them I may have finished it by now!) I am looking forward to the rest, must persevere...although May could be interesting and may get caught up in something else, thanks Tilly

Yes me too, sounds unusual. Good to hear it's short, that suits me as most of the time I fall asleep over my book. Not the book's fault, just too tired in the evenings.

WibblyPigRocks Tue 28-Apr-09 21:49:15

Yes, I would have been quite happy to read a bit more - I was quite engrossed in the characters, although I do wish I cared about them a bit more.

Anyway, I did enjoy reading it and definitely enjoyed chatting about it tonight. Thanks, ladies!! x

carriemumsnet (MNHQ) Tue 28-Apr-09 21:50:25

I can just about manage the Mumsnet book of the month - other than that don't really have a to-read list! But really enjoying the book club and someone else choosing a book that I otherwise wouldn't read - and have so far enjoyed them all so well done Tilly and thanks all for voting and taking part.

Dh home and dinner ready so will sign off - but thanks again for tonight and see you next month

Here we are: May Book of the Month selection is up and ready for your vote - quite a lot of American writers on this list too.

I am about to go back and read the bits I skimmed - thanks all for a great night and hope to see you next time (May's chat will be Tues 2 June)

Thanks Tilly! Looking forward to reading the next one once I've ploughed thru the rest of Middlesex see you next month.

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